The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Flint, bad tap water runs politically deep

Aaron Dunigan waves to cars as volunteers hand out water at the Joy Tabernacle Church on Monday in Flint, Mich. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Monday pledged that officials would make contact with every household in Flint to check whether residents have bottled water and a filter and want to be tested for lead exposure while his embattled administration works on a long-term solution to the city's water crisis. (Conor Ralph/Flint via AP)
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In October, officials in Flint, Mich., finally admitted the city's water supply had problems.

The residents of this economically beleaguered, majority-black city of about 99,000, just more than an hour north of Detroit, had lodged complaints about the water's smell, taste and look for months. Potable tap water does not generally carry with it the fragrance of the local public pool nor the flavor of metal. It does not carry a distinctly blue or yellow color. It is also not generally regarded as a potential cause of widespread skin rashes or viewed with enough suspicion that one local pastor refused to perform baptisms in it. Certainly not here in the United States.

But the water coming out of Flint's taps did all of the above after city officials (more on that later) switched from a more expensive water supply in Detroit to a plan that involved pulling and treating water from the Flint River. Then, after that switch happened and the complaints began, a local pediatrician -- followed by state health officials -- found that levels of brain- and bone-damaging lead in the bodies of a large number of Flint children was simply too much to be ignored. But there's also some evidence to suggest that state officials knew about the lead problem, as early as July.

Last week, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) declared a state of emergency, noting that the water poses an immediate threat to public health and safety, just after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would investigate the situation in Flint. Synder's declaration also makes Michigan eligible for federal aid.

[January 2015: Michigan governor declares state of emergency over Flint water lead levels]

This week, Snyder has called out the National Guard based in Saginaw, Mich. The troops will, as the put it, "staff fire stations here, freeing up members of the American Red Cross so that they can assist with door-to-door distribution of water and water filters." And, now, there is news that a cluster of 10 deaths in and around Flint due to Legionnaires Disease might have been caused by the city's water.

This much is certain: There is a lesson in Flint for us all.

The failure, underperformance or utter treachery of any government may be a juicy-subplot to the reality show sometimes masquerading as as the 2016 presidential race. And the slow line at the DMV remains something about which strangers everywhere can and do commiserate. Government has, for some Americans, been a purely villainous force since at least the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan declared government to be the actual problem.

And people have a right to that view. But the situation in Flint highlights the very-real limits of reducing both the size and cost of government at every turn, of making savings the organizing principle of government. Money truly is not everything, even in a poor city in one of the richest countries in the world. When it is, the crisis in Flint is one possible result.

Flint is one of those economically hard-hit Midwestern cities, left in a constant state of crisis or quandary. From a distance, those fights can seem philosophically engaging: the stuff of good dinner party conversation and debate for people in the know, who also happen to live elsewhere. But on the ground in Flint, this has required sad and even terrible choices, all types of cutbacks and then a state declaration that none of this was enough.

Snyder used a state law to appoint an emergency manager, a process that began in 2011. And along with the emergency manager came a board to whom the manager could appeal to override decisions made by Flint's non-partisan, elected city council. In short, Flint has spent years under emergency manager control, a person whose primary charge appears to have been cutting costs.

That same emergency manager, Darnell Earley, has denied that he is responsible for the current crisis. He says the Flint City Council voted to make use of the cheaper water supply from the river as part of a larger plan to join that new regional water system. He says he privately objected to using Flint River water, but local reporters did not find a mention of switching the city's water supply to the Flint River in the related council resolution.

And when The Fix spoke briefly with Flint Ward 2 Councilwoman Jacqueline Poplar Wednesday, she could not have been more emphatic. The city council never voted to approve the shift in the city's water supply. Never, she said. And with that Poplar advised The Fix Earley is now the emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools and wished us goodnight.

Whoever is responsible, this was the reasoning for the water-source change: It seemed Flint could save $8.5 million over the course of the next few years if did two things. It would join a new regional water system under construction. That system's 2016 fees were expected to come in at about $3.5 million less than those Flint would have paid for water from Detroit. In the interim, the city would turn to the local Flint River for a short-term water supply. That was supposed to save another $5 million.

Now, it's important to note here that when the switch decision was made, abandoned refrigerators and auto parts were not at all hard to find in and around the Flint River's banks. It had a reputation for being polluted. Still, the somebody with the the authority to make the decision moved right ahead. And when the water from the Flint River started flowing into Flint homes, it carried with it components so corrosive they are suspected to have leached metals from the water system's pipes.

This, folks, is democracy co-opted by corporate concerns and functions -- attention to cost savings before any and all things. It also has to be said that whatever dollars were saved with the switch are probably gone now.

The state of Michigan has already pledged $12 million to deal with Flint's water crisis and $1 million just to help supply the town with bottled water and lead filters for homes. Flint itself had to commit $2 million to the work of reconnecting to a safer water source out of Detroit. Distribution of information and bottled water are essential, but not free. And somewhere, in some back room, lawyers for the city, state and probably some Flint residents have to be talking over the entire situation while logging billable hours.

Then, there is the almost immeasurable human toll.

Lead is toxic to the brain, particularly for young developing minds. People who have been exposed to unsafe levels of lead have serious difficulty controlling impulses, retaining information and learning in school or holding thought-intensive jobs. Lead can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and premature arrivals. It can damage the ability of the body to take in the nutrients needed for cell development and the growth of strong teeth and bones. The damage lead does to the body -- specifically the brain -- is irreversible. And we are talking about a community where 8 percent of the population -- nearly 8,000 kids -- are under age 5.

That's a combination that will create all manner of private and public expenditures, too. It can, and probably already has, altered the course of lives.